This is an article that I did recently for the excellent Tribune.  

Mixing pop and politics

He asks me what the use is

I offer him embarrassment

And my usual excuses…

Billy Bragg – Waiting For The Great Leap Forward 

From John Lennon returning to sender his Harold Wilson bestowed MBE because, among other things [his then single] “Cold Turkey has slipped down the charts”, through to David Cameron’s jarringly RP verdict “awesome” on meeting US rap artist Rhymefest not long after condemning the genre as immoral, politics and pop have always been slightly odd bedfellows. The times when they have overlapped have often been a marriage of convenience. Yet competing technologies mean that contemporary youth culture is much more than simply pop music. Similarly contemporary politics cannot be simply equated with the old Labour/Conservative duopoly. 

I began researching youth culture back in the 1990s, alongside an extra-curricular involvement in the Labour party. Many claimed that my subject of enquiry was dead. The rise of computer games and Australian soap opera led several broadsheet cultural commentators to conclude that it was “game over” for the seemingly endless hedonism and idealism infused succession of pop-based post war youth fads that the UK had hitherto spawned.

Over a decade on, my resultant book Beyond Subculture attempts to disprove this pessimism. Even if party politics barely feature in the content, parallels can be drawn between the state of play in party recruitment and post-subcultural analysis of youth culture and pop. The last main glut of academic UK youth cultural studies was published in the 1970s with the notion of subcultures at its centre. These were tightly bonded oppositional groupings with strong internal norms to which members committed themselves to until they were eventually doomed to replicate their trajectories parents in mindless, meaningless, soul-destroying labour. Subcultural outbursts were largely a compensatory mechanism for the followers’ low-status positions in society.

The original neo-Marxist proponents of British subcultural theory based their conclusions rather narrowly on studies of male gangs with working-class members hanging round on street corners for kicks.  Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and we inhabit pluralist times characterised by fluidity and flux. My research has examined the practitioners and publics of Asian underground music, dance music cultures, French hip-hop and crossovers between them. Theoretically the German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s chacterisation of modern existence as “risk society” and French philosopher Michel Maffesoli with his notion of neo-tribes have been influential in twentyfirst century youth studies. They conclude that the young are not committed enough to throw in their lot behind all-encompassing subcultures – if such things ever existed.

Today’s sophisticates instead selectively combine influences at will. The same seems to apply across the age spectrum to politics. It is not terribly original to note that issue-based politics are more attractive to the young than political parties which by definition are more doctrinal in the totality of their prescriptions and programmes for government. To most young people today the very idea of political party membership seems extreme in comparison to sympathising with an appropriately globalised broad aim like “making poverty history”. Indeed such a belief is tenable in tandem with any number of other positions like not wanting to renew trident – although Gordon and Tony subscribe to the former but certainly not the latter. Furthermore the insurrectionary aspect of joining Labour that when they were in opposition has long gone as they are the masters now. 

At the height of cool Britannia, Chris Smith as New Labour’s first culture minister memorably stated that Britain earned more from its pop industry than its car manufacturing trade. Pop today is a multi-million pound/euro/dollar industry; part of the establishment rather than any threat to it, even if its uneasy intersection with politics has spawned some cringeworthy moments. Remember John Prescott having a bucket of water poured on him by anarcho-pranksters Chumbawama at the Brit awards or Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair raising a glass in mutual admiration at an early New Labour number 10 shindig for the stars before the not-so-good-looking-but-talented Gallagher brother’s retrospective regrets about appearing as court jester at the shindig? Noel complained about being “used” but the using was surely mutual.  

The demographic inevitability of pop’s outreach further up the age scale is now illustrated by politicians.Clinton was never slow to miss a sax-playing photo opportunity, Alan Johnson and Tony Blair have been in bands in their day and even arch-Tory Michael Ancram has some ability as a guitar player. New Labour’s early love-in with musicians peaked with the advent of Britipop. The bubble subsequently burst when the welfare-to-work styled New Deal pulled the plug on the tried and tested pop practice of honing creative musical talent on the dole.  

My political awareness began in the eighties with the Billy Bragg spearheaded rock against Thatcher initiative Red Wedge. CND and the Anti Apartheid movement were the causes of the day. The soundtrack was earnest jingley-jangly guitar music. The next sea-change came with hypnotic rhythms of rave and its up-all-night manifesto of repetitive beats. John Major’s short-lived government attempted to legislatively crush related dance-music gatherings with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill of 1994 sparking widespread youth protests. It looked like Thatcher’s children were finally getting worked up about something – albeit the right to party which could be interpreted as ultimately selfish. The Act had an easy parliamentary passage aided and abetted by Labour but its opponents have since emerged older and wiser into anti-globalisation and environmental protests.

The Iraq war more recently galvanized many. 9/11 and 7/7 too have been defining moments: both unprecedented, unforeseen and in some ways the unintended consequences of wider happenings.  Indeed if we’re talking revolting youth 2006 style, surely one of the most noteworthy features of contemporary British society currently dominating the news agenda is the rise of extreme Islamic sentiments amongst an increasingly vocal number of second generation UK youth of first generation migrant Muslim parents – people clearly throwing their lot in with an all-encompassing value system. I would hesitate to call religion the new rock’n’roll though. Give or take an out-of-context Koranic quotation here and there, self-appointed leaders who persuade the impressionable that they are disenfranchised and therefore must seek vengeance, operate with near-identical arguments in the recruitment of Muslim youth as do the BNP making their pitch to white working class voters. Both seek to fill a void and need to be stopped. We live, as we are constantly reminded by academics like Beck and politicians of all hues, in unpredictable times.

Historians will have the final say on what the defining moment of my generation is, in terms of politics and pop. Forecasting what comes next in this sometimes turbulent relationship is not an easy game and I’m personally reluctant to engage in crystal-ball gazing. Now approaching my mid 30s I am not by most people’s standards a “young” person anymore anyway. The only stratosphere where that adjective possibly applies at the age of 34 is – you guessed it – in that parallel universe of politics.